I had decided not to go for the NYSC orientation camp the previous year. It was 1993 and graduation had been deferred to 1992 due to the 5 months university closure in 1988 as our reward for the SAP riots. I had been posted to Maiduguri in 1992. I had no plans to serve in an exercise that I concluded was going to be of no value to me then or in future.
Upon the news that the 1993 postings had been released and sent to the universities, my girlfriend proceeded to engage me in a battle where she deployed all the powers of blackmail, sensible arguments and finally; unsanctioned tears, all in a bid to get me to go for the NYSC service.
The final determining battle occurred during the night on a Tuesday which preceded the Wednesday which was the designated last day of arrival to orientation camps by participants all around the country. Resigned to the superiority of ‘woman power’, I woke up and went to my Alma Mata; University of Lagos to enquire about getting my ‘call up’ letter. Providence favored me as all the relevant officials were available and by 9am, I had the letter in my hand and the destination was Ogwu – Enugu.
As I had never gone past the Niger Bridge, the thought of venturing that far eastwards was daunting, coupled with the uncountable references to the ways and actions of the Igbo people which I had grown up with as a Lagos resident, I immediately concluded that my NYSC adventure will be deferred to the next batch. I returned home feeling satisfied at my having attempted to go, only to meet ‘madam’ waiting earnestly to say her bye byes to me. Alas, my declaration of Ogwu-Enugu as the assigned destination did not elicit the expected response from ‘madam’ though she had been inundated with same prejudices as I have been, about the Igbo people. She insisted that I must go. After the previous days of warring on this matter, I did not have any more resolve to argue, so I accepted. In a bid to outsmart her, I pointed out to the list of stuff you were required to bring to camp and was again outwitted when she went out and returned with everything on the list except bucket, and she promptly declared that I should buy one when I get to camp and give it out when leaving. Hmm! Ogwu-Enugu? Why not!
I got ready and packed. After asking a few people, we learned that Oyingbo was the place to get a ‘luxurious’ bus to Enugu. We drove to Oyingbo and it took us about 30 minutes to find a bus going to the east, as we learned that they all depart by 9am. The time was past noon. I must inform you that the bus we found had the ‘luxurious’ removed from its attributes a long time before then, but I had switched into an adventure mode, so I was looking forward to the experience.
The bus finally commenced its journey at 3pm and the going was hot, loud and rocky. An indication of what to expect of the journey played out between Sagamu interchange on Lagos –Ibadan expressway and Sagamu town. The bus just lost power and the driver steered it off the road and on to the shoulder. The conductor, whom I finally decided must be a moonlighting mechanic, opened the engine and literarily jumped in. 30 minutes later, we were again on our way. This power loss-stop-conductor jump in, scenario repeated itself 3 times as we inched our way towards Onitsha, with each episode seemingly lasting longer than the last. We crossed the Niger Bridge at 8pm and I held my breath as I thought the structure was ancient and couldn’t possibly hold the weight of this bus and the other automobiles on it. As we approached Onitsha, we had a tire blow-out which took an hour to fix.
As we approached Iweka (Upiweka was all I heard), the time was 9pm and there were very few vehicles on the road. Upiweka was deserted and there were only a handful of people standing together on the side of the road. I could see them frantically trying to wave down vehicles as they sped past. I wondered.
Our bus suddenly came to a halt and the driver and conductor, in what was obviously prearranged, declared in unison that the bus will not be proceeding to Enugu as previously planned, but will continue the journey in the morning. As most of the passengers swiftly engaged the duo in a money back contest, I got off and hauled my traveling back across my shoulder and headed towards the group of people I had seen on the side of the road. It was a gentleman walking alongside me, that informed me that there had been some riot in Onitsha and it had extended to Enugu and some other places and that was the reason ‘upiweka’ was deserted and the reason the bus was not going any farther. I took my cue and informed this man that my destination was Enugu and that I had no clue as to how to get there. He advised that I should get a bus from the side of the road, going to Enugu; that it was only about an hour in that direction, he said whilst pointing in said direction. Now clutching my bag, I joined the group on the side of the road, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get transportation and blaming ‘madam’ for making me go through this and myself for not having gone to Maiduguri the previous year.
The honking from a brand new Toyota pick-up truck with ‘JOHN HOLTS’ crested on its doors, with the driver shouting; “Enugu Enugu Enugu”, shook me from my reverie. As I saw people dash towards the vehicle, I moved fast and went straight for the open behind, throwing my bad ahead and flying unto the metal. O boy! This was already turning into an adventure. The driver declared how much he was charging for the trip and nobody complained, as we huddled in the back, each deep in their own private thoughts. The Onitsha-Enugu road was horrible, so the going was perilous as the driver kept up his speeding.
About 30 minutes into the journey, I could see, through the window of the closed cabin and the windscreen, what seemed to be a tree fallen across the road ahead of us. The driver seemed to increase speed at this time and I assumed I didn’t see well. Suddenly, the vehicle screeched as the driver slammed on the breaks, at the same moment the vehicle was swung to the right straight into the thick brush beside the road, as the vehicle vibrated from the bad ground and tree trunks and brush, my shock was multiplied manifold as I saw several males holding what appeared to be guns and cutlasses standing in the bushes with shocked expressions as the vehicle swerved and passed by within arm’s reach of these people. Just as suddenly, the vehicle changed direction and galloped back up through the brush and we were back on the road and speeding in the direction of Enugu. I looked back and I saw a few of those people run on to the road from the concealment of the brush just as I saw the massive tree that had been used to block the road. Phew! These were highway robbers and the driver had just eluded them in the most brazen way. O boy! The rest of the journey was uneventful, except for the terrible road.
We arrived Enugu and the driver stopped the vehicle, got out to collect the agreed fare from me. He spoke to me in Igbo language and of course I did not respond. I promptly asked him how I would get to Ogwu. At the mention of Ogwu, he switched to English and asked if I was a ‘corper’? I answered in the affirmative. He said; “it will be difficult to get to Ogwu tis night, but try the park down there (pointing)”. I said; “thank you” as I handed him the money. He pulled back his hand without accepting it and said; “I will not collect ‘corper’ money. I want you to enjoy Enugu and stay here and marry after”. I laughed and said; “I am very grateful, thank you sir”. As I walked in the direction of the park he had pointed, I thought to myself; I would like to see the look on ‘madam’s’ face when I declared that I would be living in Enugu permanently after service. Priceles s!
I noticed that the streets were totally deserted, no vehicles or pedestrians about. I decided that; in the event that I could not get a taxi to Ogwu, I would find a hotel, sleep and return to Lagos the next day, as camp would be closed by midnight that day. Then, 100 meters ahead, I saw what I could make out as 3 men in front of a bungalow. I approached them with the intent to ask directions to the nearest decent hotel. I got to the house and they stopped chatting as they saw me approach. “Good evening gentlemen, I am from Lagos and was headed to the NYSC camp at Ogwu. It seems I will not find a taxi to get me there, so I would appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of a decent hotel so I can get some sleep” I said. A dark lanky fellow answered with a short laugh. He said; “sorry for the inconvenience caused by the riots of today. Also, those NYSC people still continue to write Ogwu-Enugu instead of Ogwu – Enugu state. My brother, Ogwu is over an hour outside Enugu and you will not get anyone to take you there at this time of the night. Come; let me take you to the hotel”
He spoke to the other 2 and we left, walking down the road for about 5 minutes till we came to what looked like a 2 storey building in total darkness. As he knocked on the metal gate loudly, I thought of the hotels in Lagos and how they could never be locked at such a time. After a few seconds of loud knocking, a voice responded from somewhere within. A brief exchange ensued and by the raised voice of my escort, I knew the result was not favorable to my situation. He turned round, visibly irritated, muttered what I thought to be; “ignorant retard” under his breath and we walked back in the direction we had come. We got back to the house and the other 2 people. My escort narrated, that’s what I assumed, what happened to the others and comments were passed back and forth. Soon afterwards, the other 2 said their ‘goodnights’ and left, with me sitting on the low fence wondering what would become of me that night. My escort turned to me and said; “My brother, let’s go to bed, tomorrow is another day”.
We walked through the corridor of what I now realized was a ‘face-me-I-face-you’ residence, to a door facing the entrance at the end of the corridor. He opened the door to a fair sized room with a medium sized bed opposite the door, a 3 seater couch to the right of the door as you entered, and stacks and stacks of sheets of paper with hand written stuff on them stacked nearly to the ceiling in several rows, at the bottom end of the bed. I wondered what the sheets were for. The following transpired;
Escort: “you can sleep on the bed. Tomorrow we will see what can be done”
Me: “Thanks a lot sir, but No sir. I will be very ok on this couch. I cannot inconvenience you”
Escort: “brother, it is no inconvenience to me; it is my pleasure to help. In fact, I insist”
Me: “Sir, insist all you want o, I am ok on this couch”
And I lay curled up on the couch after the exchange. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my escort prepare for bed and get into bed. He left the lights on and I was grateful for that, as I kept my eyes shut but refused to sleep as I considered all the ethnic bigoted stories of the Igbos I had brown up with. Finally I was overwhelmed by exhaustion and sleep took over.
I woke up with a start. I looked over to the bed and my escort was nowhere to be seen. I got up and fearing the worst, I checked the door. It opened. I looked out into the corridor and I saw a child and a couple going about their business. I shut the door and sat down, wondering what had happened to my escort. 10 minutes later, he bounces in, smiling,
He says; “Good morning, Hope you were able to rest sufficiently cos I am never able to sleep on the 1st night in new surroundings”.
Me: “Sir, Good morning sir, I slept well. I thank you for the accommodation. I am very grateful”
Escort: “I don’t think you should take a bath as we have a communal bath here, but you can brush your teeth outside”
Me: “Ok sir. I will brush later”
Escort: “I have arranged for someone to take you to the NYSC camp, don’t worry you will be allowed to register”
Me: “Really sir! Thank you so so much. God bless you”
Then he looks at me for a second and asked; “what is your name? Which school did you graduate from and what did you study?”
Me: “I am OlaLekan Anifowoshe. I finished from Computer Science last year in University of Lagos”
Me: “Sir, what is your name sir?”
Escort: “Do you not know me?”
At this point, I wondered what he meant by that.
Me: “Err No sir, I do not know you. I have never been to Enugu before this”
Escort: with a chuckle “No, I know that. But do you not know my face? Do you know the Masquerade?”
Me: Looking quite confused “Masquerade? As in Masquerade all around or are you talking about Masquerade of Giringori Akabobu?”
I had grown up watching Village Headmaster and Masquerade as the leading Nigerian series and I sincerely loved them, till now.
Escort: laughing now “Yes, Masquerade with Zebrudaya Okorigwe Nwongbo Alias 4.30”
Me: “Of course I watch Masquerade. I love Masquerade”
Escort: “then you should know me. I co-write the scripts (pointing to the pile of papers) and also star in it”
I stopped and looked at him for what seemed like an age, as I ticked off the characters in the series; chief Zebrudaya, Clarus, Giringori, Ramota, Apena, Ovuleria, Chief, Natty. Ah!
Me: “Gawd! You are Natty”
Escort: Laughing hard now “Yes I am Natty, pleased to meet you”
There was a knock on the door and one of the other 2 men from the night before, opened the door, stuck his head inside and said; “I am ready, let us go”. Natty turned to me and told me that his in-law drives a taxi and will take me to Ogwu. He then walked me to the car as I thanked him for such kindness. He threw my bag into the booth and I got in, he pressed a piece of paper into my palm. I looked down and saw that he had written his name and address. I looked back at him and he said; “If you are posted to Enugu, you can come visit any time, but if not, you can write any time. Good luck brother. I wish you a great life”. All I could say was; “God bless you” as tears welled up in my eyes as the car pulled away, much the same as right now as I write about it.
The journey to Ogwu was uneventful as ‘in-law’ was not into much talking, but he still managed to point out sites and took time to tell me their history. He also informed me that the NYSC camp at Ogwu is at the very location that served as the Biafra army headquarters during the civil war. We arrived at the camp which was situated on a hill with only one approach. ‘In-Law’ left me in the car for about 20 minutes and when he returned; he informed me that I was cleared to register. I was very grateful, but not as grateful and tearful as I was when I asked him how much the fare is and he said; “my ‘in-law’ gives you time and room to sleep, I can give you transport too”
I went through service and though I was posted to Enugu, I never visited Natty. I also never wrote him as I lost the piece of paper in camp. However, that incidence, from the John Holt driver to Natty and his ‘in-law’ removed every single shred of prejudice that I had grown up with. Going into camp, I was cleansed and from then on, I only saw people as good, bad or disturbed and in need of help. Since then, I have met several people whose actions and/or utterances give credence to those prejudicial stereotyping, but for me, these have just been bad people, irrespective of tribe, religion or even level of education and exposure.
A keeper of neighbors. A giver of shelter to wayfarer. A helper of strangers. This is who we were. This is why we were the happiest people on the planet. This is who we were. This is who we must be if we desire a better Nigeria.
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